From the pages of a book to the small screen, what is the best TV adaptation?
We’ve already discussed film adaptations in a previous list but this week we turn on the TV, in honour of one of the best TV experiences in years; Game of Thrones. As season 7 arrives on our shores we take a look at how TV drama can be a powerful medium of its own. It definitely does things film can’t. Playing out over a longer period means storylines are often more complex and as a result give characters room to grow. It becomes a nuanced experience. Some books benefit from being squeezed into a two hour format but others just need that space.
The golden age of television has brought about a lot of, well, gold. Budgets have soared and in some cases rival Hollywood blockbusters. Specifically in regards to production values and special effects (looking at you dragons). However, I don’t mean to diminish the more moderately budgeted programmes made by the BBC and other smaller networks. In fact, the BBC are responsible for some of the strongest drama series of recent years.
10. The Jewel in the Crown (1984) ITV
The Books: The Raj Quartet novels (1965–75) Written by Paul Scott
The Jewel in the Crown takes place during the second world war in India. The series explores issues of discrimination and colonialism against the backdrop of the last years of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement. I first read this whilst studying for my English Literature A Level and it broadened my horizons, making me realise literature could be a window to history. Deeply moved by the injustice the characters faced, it helped me begin to understand a very morally ambiguous time in British history. The story is told through the scattered perspectives of different character viewpoints but the adaptation takes a simpler route, choosing to play the narrative out chronologically. Featuring a breakout role for Game of Thrones star Charles Dance, as well as his co-stars Geraldine James and Art Malik. It’s listed in the BFI 100 greatest British programmes.
9. War and Peace (2016) BBC
The Book: War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy
In my opinion, no one does misery like the Russians. Endeavouring to expand my cultural capital by reading seminal works of classic literature; War and Peace was at the top of my list. It was a big enough task to finish reading it, let alone adapting it but one of the things the BBC does particularly well is costume drama. Even the beast that is War and Peace.
Leo Tolstoy’s novel was beautifully adapted into six neat episodes by Andrew Davies. Davies handled the sprawling narrative and vast cast of characters with seeming ease. None of its original essence has been lost. Incredible acting, cinematography and an accomplished script hit all the right marks. A classic of Russian literature truly brought to life.
8. Jeeves and Wooster (1990) ITV
The Books: Jeeves short stories (1917 - 1966) by P. G. Wodehouse
P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster pivots on the relationship between hapless aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his seemingly omniscient and wise gentleman’s gentleman Jeeves. As Wooster gets into romantic scrapes, Jeeves gets him out of them. The stories are witty, comprising of memorable one-liners and incredulous situations. They’re true to the books and perfectly rendered, leaving the original humour intact. The casting of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry are two of the best casting choices in TV history. Watching this is like being transported to the aristocratic homes of the early 20th century and bearing witness as the antics unfold.
7. American Gods (2017) Starz
The Book: American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman
A contemporary classic that is immediately relevant and will probably continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Old gods battle it out with the new in a war that bubbles under America’s surface. The novel is a meandering journey across the united states detailing Shadow’s encounters with the gods. However the series instead chooses to be an ensemble piece, focusing on a multiple array of quirky character. The producers chose to expand upon minor characters and ideas, lending more colour and depth. Shadow’s wife Laura has been developed into a flawed yet badass character who is immensely captivating to watch. With this expansion of characters comes a wealth of visual treats, which relish in portraying its gods in whatever whimsical or malevolent form they manifest.
6. Mapp and Lucia (2014) BBC
The Books: Mapp and Lucia collection (1920 - 1939) by E. F. Benson
Mapp and Lucia revolves around the humorous rivalry between two village social climbers. Adapted from a series of novels, the script is made up of all the juiciest incidents from each, that when put together create a joyous whole. E. F. Benson’s turn of phrase is effortlessly comic and the adaptation has lost none of that charm. I watched this four times in a short period and it was an absolute pleasure each viewing and was left bereft every time it came to an end.
5. The Night Manager (2016)
The Book: The Night Manager (1993) by John le Carré
Night manager and former soldier, Jonathan Pine is recruited by Angela Burr an intelligence operative to infiltrate the inner circle of arms dealer Richard Roper. This is an outline bound to intrigue but I could never have imagined how I would have felt as Jonathan was drawn deeper into his mission. I couldn’t sit still, reeling in my seat and desperate for every bittersweet minute to past. Adapted from the John le Carré classic, the show received 36 award nominations and won 11 of them. These included three golden globes, all for best performances by Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman. Each one well deserved.
4. House of Cards (1990) BBC
The Books: House of Cards (1989) To Play the King (1992) The Final Cut (1994) by Michael Dobbs
“I want to be everyone’s daddy” This creepy statement sets the tone for House of Cards. Although the American version has gained much acclaim, it is still the original version that has the killer edge. Adapted from the novel by Michael Dobbs, a conservative politician himself, the series documents Francis Urquhart’s ruthless rise to the position of prime minister. He will go to any ends to get what he wants. A brilliantly tense drama tinged with the knowledge that truth is stranger than fiction thus making the series all the more frightening.
3. Orange Is the New Black (2013) Netflix
The Book: Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (2010) by Piper Kerman
This is a dynamic romp through the world of the American penal system through the eyes of a privileged white woman. Based on the memoir of the same name, the show is raw and visceral in its highs and lows. It's hard not to feel the helplessness of those incarcerated alongside Piper Kerman. What makes this a truly astonishing series is the scope. The predominantly female cast is alarmingly authentic which makes the human stories all the more real. A progressive and groundbreaking drama portraying women in every shape and form.
2. Wolf Hall (2015) BBC Two
The Books: Wolf Hall (2009) Bring Up the Bodies (2012) by Hilary Mantel
In 2012, The Observer named Wolf Hall as one of it’s ten best historical novels. A fictionalised biography documenting the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel spent 5 years researching and writing the book and this definitely shows in her subtle prose. “Lyrically yet cleanly and tightly written. Solidly imagined yet filled with spooky resonances.” Christopher Taylor mentioned in his Guardian review and this atmosphere is exactly what the adaptation has managed to capture. The adaptation covers both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which extends to the execution of Anne Boleyn. This may be Mantel’s interpretation of the facts of Thomas Cromwell's life but the storytelling is so accomplished it’s hard not to see it as truth on the page as well as on the screen.
1. Game of Thrones (2011) HBO
The Book Series: A Song of Ice and Fire (1996 - present) by George R. R. Martin
It had to be Game of Thrones. This series has everything you’d want from a drama. Dragons? Check. Political intrigue? Check. Zombies? Check. Sex? Check. The list goes on. The series of novels started in 1996 and has reached an unprecedented amount of notoriety for a adult fantasy franchise. This show is pure spectacle and winter will be here for a very long time.